NFC West: Ken Houston


While Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless were debating Terrell Owens' alleged diva tendencies in the video above, I was revisiting notes from our 2008 package on all-time great NFL receivers.

Owens ranked ninth on the list even though our seven panelists -- Hall of Famer Raymond Berry, former Green Bay Packers receiver and longtime scout Boyd Dowler, longtime coach/executive Mike Holmgren, Hall of Fame defensive back Ken Houston, Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, former receiver Keyshawn Johnson and Packers general manager Ted Thompson -- were not unanimous in their support.

Owens, released by the Seattle Seahawks this week, would be eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's 2017 class unless he plays this season. He has Hall of Fame numbers across the board: sixth in receptions, second in receiving yards, second in receiving touchdowns.

A sampling of what our panelists said back in 2008:
  • Dowler: "Terrell Owens drops too many passes. He probably drops too many passes to be on this list, but he makes so many that are so good, it's incredible. The ones he drops, he comes right back. I can't eliminate him. He is so big and so strong. You talk about how the guy has to be tough. Well, he is the epitome is toughness. To play when you are hurt and don't miss games, it isn't good enough to just go out there. If you go out there and play, you have to play the same. Some guys are capable of doing that. Some guys are not. Coach Lombardi used to tell us some guys can't play with a hang-nail. Some can play with a broken leg."
  • Houston: "Paul Warfield was a tough guy. Lance Alworth was a tough guy. Quiet as he was, he took a lot of beatings for the balls he caught. And then you go with Charley Taylor, I thought was extremely tough. James Lofton was, I like to say, a mean receiver. He would fight you. He'd catch it and he took quite a few hits before he got the ball. Back then, you couldn't run across the middle and catch the ball without fighting your way across the middle first. And I guess the guy that I would put in that category from today's receivers is Terrell Owens. To me, if I had to pick a receiver out of today's guys, I'd pick him over Randy Moss because he's tough. Say what you want to about him, he will go across and catch the ball. It's probably going to end his career because of it, but I've seen Randy and he's great -- I love to watch Randy Moss -- but I've seen him kind of deny some passes across the middle where he just didn't want to go in there and catch those kinds of balls. And so to me, that guy is a throwback, Terrell Owens."
  • Moon: "Bigger defensive backs can't stay with him because of his quickness. Smaller defensive backs can't stay with him because of his strength. He can just bully them around. And once he catches the football, he is so dangerous afterwards because he is so big and he knows how to run with the football after the catch. And again, he's been in three different offenses with San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas and he still continues to put up numbers. Some guys, you can say they are system guys. Even though he has kind of been in the same system two of those places, still, when you change teams, it can be a little bit difficult if you are not a great player."

That was a sampling. I'm sure we'll be revisiting this one when Owens finally does become eligible for the Hall.
There's little sense in taking the bait when San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh tells a radio program Michael Crabtree "has the best hands I've ever seen on a wide receiver."

Anyone with a strong grasp of NFL history would place Cris Carter, Raymond Berry and Steve Largent on a short list for receivers with the surest hands.

Hall of Famer Ken Houston, speaking for a 2008 piece on all-time great wideouts, stood up for AFL stars Otis Taylor and Lionel Taylor.

"Lionel Taylor, I mean, he would catch a BB," Houston said.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, speaking for the same piece, said Randy Moss, then with New England, had the best hands in the NFL at that time (2008).

"A lot of guys can catch," Thompson said then. "He can catch on any platform, as we say in scouting. He can adjust and catch it over the top of somebody's head, catch it falling down, and it doesn't matter if he is covered."

With Moss now on the 49ers, it is possible Crabtree does not possess the best hands among wide receivers on his own team.

Oops. I wasn't going to take the bait on this one, but now it's too late. Time to regroup.

Bottom line, I suspect Crabtree has impressed Harbaugh this offseason, and Harbaugh would like that to continue for as long as possible. By offering such strong public praise for Crabtree, Harbaugh is setting a standard for Crabtree to meet this season. He realizes Crabtree has the ability to meet that standard, or else he wouldn't make the statement.

We should all recall Harbaugh's calling quarterback Alex Smith "elite" and promoting him for the Pro Bowl last season. Then as now, Harbaugh was standing up for his guy. Smith enjoyed the finest season of his career and even outplayed the truly elite Drew Brees at times during the 49ers' playoff victory over New Orleans. The way Harbaugh backed Smith played a role in that performance, in my view.

Back to Crabtree. He has the ability to rank among the most sure-handed receivers in the game. He has not yet earned that status, but now he has little choice, right?

As the chart shows, Crabtree finished the 2011 season with 12.2 receptions per drop, which ranked 28th in the NFL among players targeted at least 100 times. Larry Fitzgerald led the NFL with 80 receptions and only one drop. Those numbers are according to ESPN Stats & Information, which defines drops as "incomplete passes where the receiver should have caught the pass with ordinary effort."

Crabtree suffered six drops last season by that standard, a few too many for the player with the best hands his head coach has ever seen on a wide receiver.
ESPN's famous NFC West alumnus, Steve Young, calls the retiring Randy Moss one of the all-time greats ... but also someone who should have challenged Jerry Rice.

"Jerry got every ounce out of everything that he had, every day," Young said. "If we had gotten all of Randy Moss every year, all his whole career, I think he'd be knocking on the door of Jerry Rice."

Moss ranked second only to Rice in the 2008 piece we put together ranking the greatest receivers. Raymond Berry, Boyd Dowler, Mike Holmgren, Ken Houston, Warren Moon, Keyshawn Johnson and Ted Thompson were panelists.

Merlin Olsen was a 14-time Pro Bowl choice in 15 NFL seasons, all with the Rams.

Olsen
No one in league history went to more Pro Bowls, and none went to as many in as few seasons.

His passing Wednesday from cancer at age 69 provides an opportunity to appreciate his career and contributions.

I'm making some calls and will have more as the day progresses. In the meantime, here's a chart showing where Olsen fits among players with the most Pro Bowl appearances, courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

PHOENIX -- The 49ers' expected emphasis on the ground game highlights the matchup between running back Frank Gore and one of the NFL's best run-support safeties.

Adrian Wilson's presence for Arizona can force the Cardinals' opponents to alter their approach. Former Cardinals cornerback Aeneas Williams, who takes his place in the team's Ring of Honor at halftime tonight, described Wilson this way:

Williams: "I would say he would be a modern-day Kenny Houston, Kenny Easley, Ronnie Lott. Devastating hitter. He is an awesome blitzer as well. You have to account for him if you want your quarterback to remain in the game. ... He is incredibly big. When I was on the field for the Dallas game, I kind of wondered, I said, 'Man, I can't believe I actually played this game.'

"This guy is huge, he can run and he is flexible. He has an the entire package that creates this ability to do what he does. And he's mean."

Gore had a 41-yard touchdown run against the Cardinals in Week 1, but Wilson picked off a pass. The signature play for Wilson this season cost him a $25,000 fine after he knocked out Bills quarterback Trent Edwards. The fear factor is legitimate.

Williams: "Talking with wide receivers during the course of my career, talking with Torry [Holt], talking with Isaac [Bruce], they always want to know where a safety is that hits. It is no joke. It impacts the game. It impacts how many balls are going to be thrown across the middle. It impacts your blocking scheme when you have a guy that is an outstanding blitzer. It changes, potentially, the outcome of the game but it certainly puts an offense on alert. In a subtle way, it gives other guys on the defense an opportunity to maybe take advantage of some one-on-one matchups that they would not have if you don't have an Adrian Wilson on the field."

The 49ers' pass protection has struggled. I'm hoping to count how many times Wilson blitzes and how the 49ers account for him.

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